What’s Happening in Space Policy April 25-May 1, 2021

What’s Happening in Space Policy April 25-May 1, 2021

Here is SpacePolicyOnline.com’s list of space policy events for the week of April 25-May 1, 2021 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week. The House is having a “committee work week” where committees meet but the House meets only in pro forma sessions. On Wednesday, however, the House and Senate will meet in joint session to hear an address by President Joe Biden.

During the Week

Presidents give State of the Union (SOTU) addresses to joint sessions of Congress every year except the first year of their new presidency when they are still settling in. However, they often give an address to a joint session of Congress about their plans and priorities that sounds a lot like an SOTU.

On Wednesday, Biden will do just that. As with SOTUs, everyone wants to know if their favorite program(s) will get a mention and so it is with this speech. Biden clearly is a NASA fan. He already has made a number of statements about how the Mars Perseverance rover exemplifies the best of what Americans can do when they work together and with international partners. He phoned the NASA-JAXA-ESA crew of Crew-2 to wish them well in the days before launch. (Vice President Harris has had at least two conversations with members of Crew-1 aboard the International Space Station as well.) And he is supporting NASA not only in words, but with actions, sending a FY2022 budget request to Congress with a 6.3 percent increase for the agency. Most of the details are not out yet, but we know it includes increases over FY2021 for Artemis, Earth science, space technology, aeronautics, and STEM education.

Will he mention NASA, or NOAA, or Space Force or anything else about the U.S. space program on Wednesday?  Time will tell, but we’re sure a lot of people would like him to indicate what timeline he’s shooting for to get people back on the Moon. Current NASA officials, SpaceX chief engineer Elon Musk (who just won the contract to build the Human Landing System), and Bill Nelson, Biden’s nominee to be NASA Administrator, all keep promoting the idea that 2024 is possible. That deadline was set by President Trump and widely panned as unrealistic for technical and budgetary reasons. Advocates for 2024 do add qualifiers to dampen expectations, like “space is hard” or “we’ll launch when we’re ready,” but it would be useful to know what Biden is willing to fight for. Several Senators at Nelson’s confirmation hearing last week insisted that 2024 be retained as the goal, but it was Congress that cut the FY2021 budget request for the Human Landing System by 75 percent so there’s a bit of a disconnect there. The last day of 2024 is just 3 years and 9 months away.  Sure seems obvious to us that’s not doable–not safely, anyway. A credible date would be helpful.

This speech will take place in the House chamber as usual, but everything will look at lot different because of COVID-19 protocols. According to the Washington Post, only 200 instead of 1,600 people will be allowed in the chamber. No cabinet secretaries. Only Chief Justice Roberts from the Supreme Court. Only the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Mark Milley). And so forth. The BIG HISTORIC CHANGE, of course, will be that the two people sitting behind him will both be women for the first time: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris in her role as President of the Senate.

As we reported, Nelson’s confirmation hearing last week was a lovefest. The committee will vote on it Wednesday morning prior to Biden’s speech. He certainly appears to be shoo-in. When it will get to the Senate floor for confirmation is another question, but these things can be fast tracked if there’s no opposition. Stay tuned.

Also on Capitol Hill this week, the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will holds its first hearing on a NASA flight program since the pandemic hit more than a year ago. On Thursday, the subcommittee will hear from NASA HQ’s Michael Meyer, Caltech’s Bethany Ehlmann, JPL’s Luther Beegle, and MIT’s Tanja Bosak on what scientists hope to learn from the Mars Perseverance mission. Perseverance and its Ingenuity helicopter certainly are good news stories and we really need them these days, so this should be fun. Ingenuity flew for the third time today.  Two more flights are planned in coming days.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) is the new chair of the subcommittee. In addition to chairing this hearing, he will speak to the Washington Space Business Roundtable on Wednesday. Hopefully he’ll talk about the committee’s space priorities and, perhaps, the chances for a new NASA authorization bill this year.

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on the nomination of Eric Lander to be Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on Thursday. With all the emphasis on climate change, it seems likely that earth science/weather/climate research at NASA and NOAA will be discussed. Biden is making his OSTP Director a member of the Cabinet, the first time the position has held such a high rank. Lander is a geneticist, but when Biden and Harris introduced him as their OSTP pick, he cited the Apollo program as something that fascinated him as a kid in Brooklyn. He said he watched Apollo “every step of the way” and meant that literally. His mother let him stay home from school to watch “every single space launch.”

All of that is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s going on this week.

Crew-1 returns to Earth, completing the ISS crew changeover. They’ll hold a pre-departure news conference tomorrow (Monday). Undocking and splashdown is on Wednesday followed by a post-splashdown news conference with NASA, JAXA and SpaceX representatives.

Also on Wednesday or Thursday, China may launch the core module, Tianhe, for its new China Space Station (CSS). They have not officially announced the launch date or time, but on Friday indicated they are getting ready. China space watchers on Twitter are confident it is scheduled for April 29, which could be April 28 Eastern Daylight Time depending on what time of day it goes. We’ll post a separate story about this when more information is available.

Tianhe is the first of three 20 Metric Ton modules that will form CSS, somewhat like Russia’s Mir space station though that ultimately had more than three. A lot of people seem to worry that China launching a multi-modular space station is a threat and puts them in a space race with us. Considering that we launched Skylab in 1973, and have occupied the ISS with our international partners continuously since November 2000, that seems an odd take on it. What race? And as someone on Twitter pointed out (can’t remember who unfortunately), maybe once they have their own space station they’ll be more careful about creating space debris.

This is the week of the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference, too. Takes place virtually all week. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office will be one of the participants in a tabletop exercise where a hypothetical asteroid is heading toward Earth and countries and agencies need to figure out how to respond. NASA has a very useful webpage explaining  what the exercise is all about. It will be updated with results during the week. Remember, the exercise is about a FICTIONAL asteroid. No need to head for the hills.

We’ll leave it there because every event this week — 30 of them already — is fascinating and there are simply too many to summarize here.

All the events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Calendar, or changes to these.

Monday, April 26

Monday-Tuesday, April 26-27

Monday-Friday, April 26-30

Tuesday, April 27

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 27-28

Tuesday-Thursday, April 27-29

Wednesday, April 28

Wednesday-Thursday, April 28-29

Thursday, April 29

Friday, April 30


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